This is Not a Test
Riley sat leaning forward on the edge of his bunk bed. The bowed arch of his back, the slope of his shoulders, and even the expression on his face all spoke of ease; together they gave the impression of a healthy young man from southern California in his natural state of being.
But the facial look didn‘t fool Aubrey for a second.
“What’s up, man?”
Aubrey knew Riley all too well. The blond-haired youngster was an unusual bird; the other observing odd traits shown from the first moment they met, but a deep reflective attitude plus his mild personality set him far apart from the others in the squad bay. The pair, after sharing their two-man cubicle for over a month now, had since become good friends.
He was, by Aubrey’s estimation, an electronic genius. This was no idle accolade; he once sat and watched Riley as he fashion a working amplifier for electric guitar, using a pocket-sized transistor radio and basic tools, just to prove it could be done. That feat impressed Aubrey; the jam session that followed earned him respect from the entire barracks.
But he also had a quirky and deceptive ability of assuming the role of an absolute liar when speaking simple truths, and yet the most boyish and beguiling facade would appear during the course of some outrageous falsehood. It was a strange but endearing sight for Aubrey to witness.
A taxi ride had demonstrated to him the amazing effect of this strange gift. The two hailed a cab one evening, and after settling in, Riley taking the rear seat while Aubrey sat up front, they discussed who would pay their fare as the car sped down the highway. Aubrey turned and asked over his shoulder,
“You want to get him?”
It was their habit to share travel expenses, so Riley replied,
“No, you get him this time; you’re closer.” He somehow made his answer sound not so innocent.
This brief dialog ended at that point, followed by a long period of silence. The hack, who spoke only basic English, began looking back and forth between the road and his rearview mirror, and then casting quick sidelong glances at Aubrey.
Thinking simple thoughts of an exciting Okinawan night out, both marines had forgotten about another cabbie who was robbed and viciously murdered weeks before, but not this fellow; he kept both eyes opened wide and darting from place to place, and before long the nervous man had sat half-turned in his driver’s seat, with one knee facing to the right.
Only Aubrey noticed this unusual behavior. He looked back once to see Riley who stared out the side window, gazing off into the evening.
The driver suddenly slammed on the brakes. Pulling off to the side of the road, he stopped the cab and began waving his arms, remembering someplace else he needed to be.
“You two, get out! Me go back Naha now. Go, go!”
Riley stood on the side of the road afterwards, hurt and offended, but Aubrey could only shake his head and laugh as they hailed another cab.
And now he asked as he looked at his serene friend,
“So what are you up to?”
A portable radio on a bedside table between the two bunks played the one American station available in this part of the world. Riley reached over to tune the volume knob slightly, but he kept the innocent act going with a slight shrug of his shoulders while a voice droned about the local weather.
“Steady temperatures for this afternoon throughout the island, folks, and lots of sun, but you might want to carry an umbrella if you plan on being out after midnight.” He then bent over and pulled a foot locker from its place under his bunk. Aubrey slid one of his own out and plopped down on the box lid.
“You not going to chow?”
The blond acted unconcerned as he shook his head. He reached inside the chest to get a shoe brush just as a popular song began playing, and after closing the top, he picked up a combat boot set near his socked feet.
“Hit the Road Jack and don’t you come back no more no more” Aubrey began fiddling with the combination lock at his knees as the singers sang, and Riley, with one hand jammed inside the boot, began buffing the boot to the catchy beat.
“What’d you say?” Riley stopped and held up the brush in midair, and he turned to stare at the radio as the singer began the second verse. Aubrey had just unlatched his lock, but he too stopped. Riley is up to something, he thought, so he waited.
“Old woman old woman, oh you treat me so mean” But what, he wondered?
“You're the meanest old woman that I ever have seen” A faint grin showed up on Riley’s face.
“Well I guess if you say so” And with that, the song abruptly quit.
He held up his bristle brush, gripping it with one finger extended, and signaled a pause. And then the announcer broke in.
“Folks, we interrupt this broadcast to bring you some breaking news. Los Angeles was just hit with a devastating nuclear explosion.” Aubrey sat up straight. Riley kept his face turned toward the radio, listening with his brush still held in midair. But he had that odd peaceful look on his face as the broadcaster delivered the news.
“The blast occurred just moments ago, and details are still sketchy at the moment, but reports are coming in as I speak. However, we do know all communications from the surrounding areas have ceased.” Riley slowly began buffing the boot again while the man continued with his descriptions.
“Fires are raging everywhere…” “Man, what the fuck? You rigged that somehow, didn’t you!”
The blond grinned slyly at Aubrey. “Want to have some fun?”
He got down on his hands and knees and pulled out a tape recorder from under his bunk, stored near the head of his rack. Several wires from the tape deck ran along the wall and up behind the table, and they ended at the back of the radio. He punched one of the buttons on the recorder, and then another to rewind the tape, and in a moment he stopped the machine. Then he pushed the start button down, slid the unit back into place and quickly took his seat again on the edge of the bunk, just as the front door to the barracks opened.
He glanced at his watch and said,
“Right on time.”
Loud voices announced the arrival of several soldiers returning from work. He smiled at Aubrey as they tromped by, and he said,
“Get them to come in.”
“Hey, guys. You got to see this.” Aubrey reached inside his locker and took out a magazine. In seconds a group of gawking men stood beside him in the enclosed area, all remarking on the latest naked women. The announcer in the background droned,
“Steady temperatures for this afternoon throughout the island, folks, and lots of sun, but you might want to carry an umbrella if you plan on being out after midnight.” The fresh-faced Clark blushed at the photographs, and as the one excited gang taunted him, the other vibrant group began singing,
“Hit the Road Jack and don’t you come back no more no more” The teasing continued as Riley sat quietly and buffed his boot.
“Folks, we interrupt this broadcast…” Aubrey, right on cue, hushed the men and lowered the magazine. Riley leaned over and turned up the volume as they quieted down and listened. The pictures were forgotten. Jaws began to drop. People stepped in closer as the newscaster stated how fires were now raging out of control. Looks were exchanged as he told of Oceanside gone, Long Beach destroyed, and of how Hollywood had vanished.
Riley began shaking his head as he stared down at the floor. He held the boot limply with one hand and the brush with the other, and he looked sad. The announcer next returned his listeners to the regularly scheduled broadcast, and the song resumed playing, so he reached for the knob and lowered the up-beat music. The room stayed hushed. And then Riley informed no one in particular.
“My sister lives in Long Beach.”
Clark had a look of terror on his face.
“Your…sister?” Everyone in the tiny cubicle looked at each other.
“Yes, my younger sister.”
“Man.” Clark looked lost for words. “I’m…I’m sorry,” He said finally, almost in tears.
“Yeah. My sister, she has cats.”
Aubrey could no longer hold it in. He tried to suppress a snicker, but the sound came out in a short burst. Clark shot him a look, but turned back to Riley, who kept staring with unfocused eyes while steadily shaking his head.
“Lot’s of cats. Seven, I think. Maybe she had eight.”
Aubrey snorted again. The kid looked from one to the other, frantic and puzzled.
“And all of her cats…everyone of them…are now dead.”
“Well I guess if you say so I'll have to pack my things and go (that's right)” That did it for Aubrey. And it didn’t help that Clark got enraged then.